Restau­rant Re­view Kai Sushi

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Lau­rel Glad­den For The New Mex­i­can

Off St. Michael’s Drive in the col­lec­tion of shops that are like the remora to the shark of Smith’s Food and Drug, Kai Sushi has a sweet lit­tle cor­ner spot. It has glass on two sides, which makes it feel, fit­tingly, a lit­tle like a fish­bowl. On the other side of the glass, peo­ple do their shop­ping, pick up their dry clean­ing, and go to the gym. On a bliz­zardy evening not long ago, the out­side world seemed like a gi­ant snow globe, spin­ning and flur­ry­ing around us.

This is not one of those sushi restau­rants for purists, where you’ll get eighty-sixed for order­ing teriyaki or a Cal­i­for­nia roll. In fact, much of the menu here is com­posed of items just like that — filled with spicy tuna, cream cheese, and fish and veg­etable tem­pura and slathered with sticky, sweet, and spicy sauces. That’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, be­cause th­ese cre­ative com­bi­na­tions can be fla­vor­ful and fun. You just need to know what you’re get­ting into be­fore you sit down.

The ba­sics are all here: miso soup, sa­vory dumplings, sal­ads, noodles, ni­giri, sashimi, and a wide se­lec­tion of rolls. Nearly ev­ery­thing that can be tem­pura-fried is. Ser­vice is po­lite and fast, a lot of the menu sounds ap­pe­tiz­ing, and por­tions are gen­er­ous. If you come in hun­gry and are prone to “eyes big­ger than stom­ach” syn­drome, you’d bet­ter pace your­self.

The miso is cloudy and salty, lit­tle rings of green onion giv­ing it some punch. Stir it and watch the cubes of tofu tum­ble around, the squares of deep-green nori flap­ping like a st­ingray’s wings. The gy­oza are slightly crisped, ten­der, and plump with a mild pork and mush­room fill­ing. Kai’s seaweed salad is cold, salty-sweet, and per­fectly rub­bery, with the tini­est hint of chile. There’s squid salad, spongy meat tossed with the oc­ca­sional lash­ing of nutty bur­dock root. The kitchen also added a dol­lop of bright-or­ange roe, which crunch-pops into tiny bursts of salin­ity. Th­ese are two of the dishes on Kai’s happy-hour menu, which in­cludes beers, hot and cold sake, var­i­ous ap­pe­tiz­ers, and rolls at dis­counted prices (all un­der $8).

Ask­ing for the fire­cracker ap­pe­tizer — the Ja­panese equiv­a­lent of jalapeño pop­pers — would prob­a­bly earn you the evil eye at a more ex­act­ing sushi estab­lish­ment, but I en­joy them all the same. Whole tem­pura jalapeños are halved and filled with spicy tuna and cream cheese, cre­at­ing an in­ter­est­ing blend of fla­vors and tex­tures. This ver­sion, sadly, was drenched in an un­nec­es­sary sesame-based sauce, ren­der­ing it vis­ually unattrac­tive and too fill­ing .

The sim­i­lar Toot­sie roll (salmon, yel­low­tail, jalapeño, and cream cheese) must be a popular choice, given that a tiny one made a cameo in my tem­pura bento box lunch. The stars of that show, though, were three large shrimp and an as­sort­ment of veg­eta­bles, in­clud­ing sweet potato, zucchini, and a fat ring of onion. The bat­ter was crisp, crunchy, light, and clean-tast­ing. It clung just enough but never kept the pri­mary fla­vors from shin­ing through. Why doesn’t ev­ery restau­rant that serves onion rings make them this way?

The rolls are pretty and well com­posed, and ni­giri por­tions are not stingy. The menu of­fers two green-chile-based rolls, one of which in­cludes tem­pura chile and, to amp up the heat, spicy tuna. We couldn’t re­sist the hi­lar­i­ously named yam yam roll, with its sweet potato and eel in­nards and car­rot-or­ange salmon on top. The sauce had been slathered on too heav­ily for my taste, but I still ap­pre­ci­ated the cre­ative com­bi­na­tion. The win­ning sushi of the night was the danc­ing spi­der roll, a beau­ti­fully com­plex blend of soft-shell crab, spicy crab, and cu­cum­ber, the top draped in al­ba­core and strewn with roe — the grown-up ver­sion of sprin­kles.

The daisy-yel­low ta­m­ago ni­giri was spongy, thick, crumbly, and overly sweet, but the nutty, slightly bit­ter uni tasted like meaty ocean con­cen­trate. The salmon skin hand roll was like a beau­ti­ful bou­quet of sushi flow­ers wrapped in toasty seaweed: oily, crunchy strips of fish skin, rice, leafy radish sprouts, and some bonus pieces of crab spilling out of the top. It was a lit­tle slop­pily rolled, though, and fell apart as we ate it.

Just be­cause Kai serves rolls with crazy names and com­po­nents doesn’t mean the restau­rant don’t take pride in purer things, like sashimi. My six-piece ap­pe­tizer was a lovely com­po­si­tion of candy colors that in­cluded mango-hued salmon laced with pearly-white fat, a blocky slab of hot-pink tuna, and an opales­cent wedge of al­ba­core the color of a young bal­le­rina’s slip­pers. Along­side were a bright wedge of lemon (even a slight touch of it gives your fish a tiny lift), a mound of pea-green wasabi, and a haystack of snow-white daikon. The plate con­sisted of just a few bites, but it left me sated — and, just for a lit­tle while, I for­got to no­tice the great world spin­ning out­side those win­dows.

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